Energy & Environment

What’s Causing Persistent Power Outages In One Master Planned Community?

Some residents in a Greater Houston suburb are predicting their power will go off any day now. How do they know? They say it happens all the time. They also complain state regulators are not helping them.

CenterPoint Energy says it's increasing tree-trimming near power lines
Centerpoint Energy says it’s increasing tree-trimming near power lines

Sienna Plantation, a huge planned community southwest of Houston, covers 16 square miles in Fort Bend County and is home to over 20,000 people.

Denise Selbst is one of the residents. On a rainy day last week, she invited us into her spacious two-story home where everything looks pretty normal. Except, that is, in her kitchen. The little clocks on her oven and microwave are blank.

Sienna Plantation resident Denise Selbst It's a constant problem. It will go out at least three times a month.
Sienna Plantation resident Denise Selbst: “It’s a constant problem. It will go out at least three times a month.”

“All my ovens, microwaves, they start flashing, I don’t even bother setting them.”

Selbst says she doesn’t reset the clocks because she says, “What’s the point?” The electricity will likely go out at any moment.

“It went off yesterday. I’m surprised it hasn’t gone out today yet. But normally when it rains, it goes out,” Selbst said. “It’s a constant problem; it will go out at least, at least three times a month if not more.”

A mile away lives another Sienna Plantation resident, Debra Maddow. She told us virtually the exact same story.

“They said, ‘Oh it’s the trees; Oh it’s the lightning’ — on days it was perfectly sunny over the summer — when we had clearly no storms or anything like that,” said Maddow.

Debra Maddow has filed several complaints with the Public Utility Commission of Texas
Debra Maddow has filed several complaints with the Public Utility Commission of Texas

She says she suspects what’s causing the outages has less to do with natural causes and more to do with Centerpoint’s design for the subdivision’s power grid.

“It seems to me they did not anticipate or prepare for the build-out of such a large community when they put in the power,” Maddow told Houston Public Media.

Maddow and other residents say the outages are not only a nuisance, they say power surges are damaging their appliances.

So, what’s going on here? Is it a place where the supply of electrical power can’t keep up with the growth of so many new houses, schools and strip centers?

“We are certainly aware of customer concerns out there,” said Alicia Dixon, a spokesperson for Centerpoint Energy, the Houston-based company that maintains the wires and poles.

Dixon said there’s nothing wrong with the design of the system, it’s what’s around it.

“It’s a community that has lots of vegetation. It’s a beautiful community. And with trees unfortunately come outages,” Dixon told Houston Public Media.

Dixon says trees are growing fast with all the rain last year, causing branches to hit electrical lines which then shorts out the system for a second. She says the power usually comes back on as the system “resets” but can stay off if a tree branch actually brings down a  power line. She also says squirrels can get zapped and cause outages and woodpeckers can damage poles so badly they eventually have to be replaced.

Wire mesh protects utility pole from woodpecker damage according to CenterPoint Energy
Wire mesh protects utility pole from woodpecker damage according to CenterPoint Energy

So Dixon says Centerpoint is doing more tree-trimming, more inspections, and is installing barriers on poles to stop the squirrels and woodpeckers.

 “We are taking action; we will continue to take action to try to improve the reliability out there.”

But there is skepticism Centerpoint can fix the problem. Sienna Plantation is the creation of Houston’s Johnson Development Corporation, one of nation’s leaders in master-planned communities. In a statement to us, Johnson Development said Centerpoint has, quote, “no real plan or timetable for a solution.” The developer said it was extremely frustrated by this and said its greatest concern was that about third the outages in the last couple of years had no known cause.

Sienna Plantation covers 16 square miles and has a population of over 20,000
Sienna Plantation covers 16 square miles and has a population of over 20,000

Homeowners have complained about all this to the Public Utility Commission of Texas. It regulates Centerpoint and approves its rates which the PUC says  include the costs for doing maintenance like trimming trees.

The PUC told us it’s investigating the complaints. But in a letter to the residents a few months ago, the PUC said Centerpoint hadn’t broken any rules and it suggested that if residents felt the power outages had damaged appliances, they should hire an attorney and take Centerpoint to court.

Homeowner Denise Selbst said she has little faith the PUC will do much more.

“They’re done with it for now. But I think if we continue to complain we’ll get some resolution,” Selbst said.

Below is a letter from the Public Utility Commission of Texas, responding to complaints made by a Sienna Plantation homeowners association.

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Dave Fehling

Dave Fehling

Director of News and Public Affairs

As Director of News and Public Affairs, Dave Fehling manages the radio news operation at Houston's NPR station. Previously, he was a reporter at the station, covering the oil & gas industry and its impact on the environment. He won top state honors for in-depth and investigative reporting as well...

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